Image credit. I am not always particularly conscious of a logical link between the images at the top of my posts and the written content underneath them, though mostly, I think, I would be able to explain some sort of association. The present picture has been chosen as an allusion to the wishful thinking underlying Bryan Caplan's immigration policy proposals. Once one assumes a certain depth of conviction, the belief system one subscribes to tends to develop a logic with its own dynamic. For instance: if you believe in advantageous spontaneous processes firmly enough, it might appear perfectly reasonable that immigration can be turned into a spontaneous order, upon which exhilarating prospect one may develop a selective fervour in search of data and theories that confirm the vision so beautifully in sync with one's dearest presumptions. I suspect, this is the psychological backdrop to Bryan Caplan's wishful thinking on immigration, in which regard it is indeed of a libertarian nature -, being, at the same time, not philosophically, but practically almost identical with Angela Merkel's recent political whim to declare Germany and Europe an area of open borders - err, to Syrians, err to who exactly is not really clear. Like Caplan, she proposes a general invitation, only to be qualified, when reality replaces rhetoric, by a mess of arbitrary ad hoc conditions.
The Indeterminacy of Immigration
In a recent post, I maintain that Bryan Caplan's libertarian take on immigration is flawed. In the meantime, I have had second thoughts as to whether it is accurate to describe Caplan's policy proposal as libertarian at all. My doubts are of a duplex nature: first, Caplan does not seem to derive his position from libertarian principles. Rather, his stance is based on a wish, namely that
unconditionally open borders ought to be recognised as
(1) a moral necessity, and
(2) a doable way of alleviating world misery superior in its outcomes both for the guests and hosts to any other outcome.
In explaining his "solution," Caplan is strangely confident in the well-functioning and benignity of the state.
Suddenly, the state is unproblematic in that host countries are not inhibited in their immigration-qua-deliverance by government-induced deficiencies that might frustrate the absorption of unlimited numbers of immigrant.
Suddenly, Caplan happily relies on government as it is to provide the kind of environment in which it is possible to easily cope with the migration of millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions of immigrants. While in all other respects the government is held to be a botcher of catastrophic import.
Suddenly, to top it all, he insists that should problems occur - a state of affairs which Caplan precludes, but toys with in a thought-experiment intended to assuage his critics - we have a state at our disposal that can be used to add any number of ad-hoc laws and policies capable of amending what difficulties may emerge.
In a word: Caplan relies on an enormous amount of confidence in the governmental status quo to be able to carry out his vision of immigration. In this sense, his proposal is hardly congenial to the libertarian or minarchist ethos, but rather of pronounced leftist pedigree - à la: since I have a good idea - which, I am sure, makes me morally superior to my opponents, - my proposition must be feasible, into the bargain.
There Is No Such Thing as a Uniquely Valid Libertarian Position on Immigration
These sceptical observations inspired in me another doubt: namely, that there cannot be any such thing as THE LIBERTARIAN POSITION on immigration.
Consider this historic scene - borrowed from Borjas: US president Carter and Dengxiao Ping meet in the oval office - a great act of rapprochement between the US and communist China. Carter comes in heavily laden with folders documenting anti-humanitarian cases detected in China. The American president loses no time to explain his Chinese counterpart that China must not keep its population as if in a prison, and should rather open its borders, so that those unhappy with the bad state of human rights in China are free to leave the country and come to the US.
Upon this reproach, Dengxiao Ping turns pensive for a while, before suddenly a smile appears on his face, and he replies: "You are right, absolutely right, Mister President. Just tell me, how many Chinese do you plan to welcome to your country? 20 million? 50 million? 200 million? We shall be happy to oblige." And that is not even considering billions of other people living in countries with a gruesome human rights record. Little wonder, Carter quickly changed the subject.
To cut a long story short: the issue is how many people is a host nation willing to and capable of absorbing, and which people are to be invited? And what is easily overlooked: whatever decision is taken, inumerous ramifications and consequences are making themselves felt as soon
At this point, it transpires that there cannot be any such thing as THE LIBERTARIAN POSITION - as no one is able to provide us with a set of libertarian premisses that deliver a unique answer to these questions: how many people, and who to include and who not to include, subject to which conditions.
If there is not a unique libertarian answer to the question of immigration, then neither - by implication is there a state of liberty uniquely corresponding with THE right immigration policy. This holds true when we go on to admit any doctrine that claims to represent the requirements of freedom. Careful, this is not tantamount to saying that all immigration policies are equally good. What I am saying is that there cannot be any such thing as an immigration policy uniquely determined as right and indispensable in terms of this or that doctrine outlining the needs of a free society.
Freedom is more about the way in which we ought to play the game of political dissent so as to ensure we cope with the tensions inherent in political strife than it is a nucleus from which to extract determinate solutions to specific questions embodying explosive political scarcity.
Immigration is a severe case of political scarcity.
Political scarcity occurs when there is more than one way of looking at an issue that affects a group of people who are not easily persuaded to give up their differing views in order to come up with a common, a mutually agreed position. A group may be as large as the American electorate, and the number of issues that create political scarcity is infinite, while the issues are not amenable to bilateral negotiation and resolution, but require political compromise, collective decision-making, and ultimately the credible threat of coercion. Generally, the mitigation of political scarcity may be perfect in that it avoids violence, but otherwise it will tend to be regarded as rather imperfect since in a free society differences of opinion will proliferate and be allowed to prevail in the presence of a more or less transient, politically dominant compromise.
Liberalism (in all its variants) is not identical with freedom. Liberalism is a set of hypotheses, some of which are being refuted by freedom, which latter includes integrally political freedom, and hence the right of non-liberals to compete for and gain transient political dominance. Freedom is an amalgam of different political views, a fusion more or less visible in most of her institutions and policies.
Maximalist libertarian demands appear convincing only if one overlooks the nature of political freedom, which is often traded off against some of the other robust conditions of freedom - as when contractual freedom is restricted in certain cases, because the legitimate processes of political freedom authenticate a certain policy, say the minimum wage, as being entitled to transient and contestable political dominance. What is overlooked are the innumerable cases where political freedom is restricted by contractual freedom - or are you allowed to use the resources of your employer against her will to advertise the promises of communism?
The various indispensable (= robust) conditions of freedom form a pulsating cloud of interrelated particles that by affecting one another wax and wane, pulsate, stretch and contract dynamically. If one treats contractual freedom as an absolute, as opposed to a relational right that is sculpted by many interrelated forces, one misses the essential resilience of freedom and sees instead catastrophic violations of her all over the place.
No society is free from political scarcity. Freedom cannot achieve the abolition of political scarcity, she is an effort to handle political scarcity as best as we can. Her ability to manage political scarcity well is among the prime reasons to value and defend liberty.